Ed. note: Please welcome Christina Gagnier, who will be covering small law firm practice. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.
My foray into writing this column for Above the Law is appropriately timed with a running Evernote scribble of speculative episodes that my partner and I have been sketching out about our lives managing a small law firm. Running a boutique tech law firm in San Francisco led by two women with a bunch of under 35-somethings is fodder for a half-hour “dramedy.”
Hopefully, through some storytelling, this column can provide inspiration, and perhaps to some, caution, about running a boutique/small law firm. Some of the things that happen to us are a little too unbelievable to be true, but I assure you, they happened and continue to make us laugh (or cry).
A little backstory. My partner and I met at law school and quickly came to the realization that we needed to get back to work, or the entire experience of simply reading a lot of old material and regurgitating it back on exams would quickly claim our souls. So, as is the San Francisco entrepreneurial way, we started our law firm, then solely a public affairs consulting firm, by incorporating in the back of our Evidence class.
The starting operating budget? $87 from an AT&T account deposit refund. We scurried to the nearest Bank of America and began to live the American dream of being lawyers in a big city. I guess it was the American dream if the American dream consists of crashing on office floors, sleeping in airports, and working out of Starbucks. It was 2008, and we thought to ourselves, in the midst of the greatest economic upheaval since the Great Depression, that we would simply walk out of law school and start a law firm. Well, we are still here…
Our firm is entirely composed of attorneys and staff under the age of 35, an anomaly in the world of law firm practice. Despite all of the references we get to Ally McBeal or The Practice, it should not be a surprise to anyone that it is not really like that. We practice law in the well-defined practice area of “Internet Law” which is probably just as clear to you as a term like “The Internet of Things.” We take what we do for our clients very seriously since we are often working in uncharted territory.
Our firm also manages crisis communications work for our clients in tandem to our legal services. Think Olivia Pope and Associates, but with technology companies — minus the presidential affair, the CIA operatives, and the unrealistic Washington, D.C. office space. Our experience is certain to provide some educational and entertainment to value to those it is shared with.
Synopsis: Christina and Stephanie form Gagnier Margossian LLP. Christina manages a gun-toting client.
Let’s start this off with what I am sure is a shocking statement: the technology industry is male-dominated. When combined with the legal industry, you sometimes get a whole other level of gender imbalance. Many of the clients are male, the lawyers you work with are male, and there is sometimes this underlying tone of intimidation when you are two petite women who do not quite fit the mold of tech lawyer.
Your clients may recognize this too. Several years ago, we took on a client in a litigation matter. While their position was defensible in the matter, there was a whole lot of underlying backstory that led to the action they were facing. When it came to talking options regarding the strategy moving forward, the conversation turned from weighing pros and cons to, let’s use the phrase “pistol-whipping,” when the client was not happy with how the matter was proceeding. Having dealt already with a self-impressed lawyer on the other side, I was now seemingly getting threatened (I think) with being “pistol-whipped.”
First, I had to confirm that my understanding of “pistol-whipped” was the common understanding and not some colloquialism that perhaps was not so aggressive. It sounded like it might only happen in a Tarantino film, so I wanted to stop and make sure I had heard the client right. Things had gotten real pretty quickly.
While this is certainly an extreme example, it demonstrates one of the biggest issues that new lawyers and small firm lawyers face: being easily intimidated out of fear of angering a client or not getting paid. When a client becomes angered, you immediately start letting your imagination spin out of control. What will they do? Knowing their background, are they going to end up blogging about how horrible your firm is? If they are getting upset, will they pay? Even worse, will they file a bar complaint?
Most of these scenarios are unlikely, but what to do when something escalates or upsets a client is often a hard thing to manage. Small firms are always worried about getting paid by their clients generally, and this coupled with your own personal version of “pistol-whipping” is enough to stop even the most gutsy of us in our tracks.
There are some major issues facing solos, small firms, new lawyers, and boutiques today, whether they be the unemployment rate for Millennial Generation lawyers, women in technology, launching a firm, combatting ageism in an industry (tech) where youth is supposed to be an advantage, branding your law firm, finding a specialization, shutting down the naysayers, networking, finding clients on Craigslist (not in Missed Connections), or using Law and Order: Special Victims Unit as your initial guidance for Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.
To compete in such a serious industry as a small firm, you have to be scrappy. A good sense of humor will go a long way.
Christina Gagnier leads the Intellectual Property, Internet & Technology practice at Gagnier Margossian LLP, with a specialization in social media, copyright and information privacy. She is also at the helm of REALPOLITECH, a digital public relations consultancy that provides a broad range of services, including crisis communications. She serves on the Board of Directors of Without My Consent, combating issues like revenge porn. If you ever need to find her, start with Twitter at @gagnier or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.